NSRC Day 2 highlights: payload integration and researcher training

The second day of the the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Orlando focused more closely on the types of scientific research (biomedical, microgravity science, astronomy, etc.) that can be performed on commercial suborbital reusable vehicles and the issues associated with carrying out this research. One key topic is integrating payloads into vehicles. With a wide range of vehicle concepts under development, there are no standards for payload size, power, and other interfaces, and NASA has indicated that they will let the market set those standards rather than impose them themselves, even for the flights it funds.

This means that researchers are working closely with vehicle providers to work through issues of integrating their experiments on spacecraft. Blue Origin, for example, has several “pathfinder” research customers who are getting their payloads flown for free while working through these issues. Blue Origin has also come up with a “Cabin Payload Bay”, a standard payload box designed to more easily accommodate experiments with various power, data, and other services. Annamarie Askren, the Research and Education Market (REM) payload integration lead for Blue Origin, said the company would be publishing a payload users guide on its web site later this week with more technical details.

While many experiments will be automated, others will require a human presence (indeed, in some biomedical cases the human will be the experiment). These payload specialists will require training, but just how much is necessary is another area without clear standards. Dan Durda of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) recommended prospective payload specialists experience as many different training environments as possible, from piloting aircraft to scuba diving. Zero-g parabolic aircraft flights are almost a given, he said, to understand what weightlessness is like. Erik Seedhouse, the training director for Astronauts4Hire (A4H), a startup that proposes to develop a cadre of professional commercial astronauts for research and other applications, described a far more rigorous set of qualification standards that A4H has developed, including centrifuge and zero-g training, aerobatic flights, and more.

The training requirements for payload specialists—far more rigorous than what’s expected for tourists—and the specialized requirements for research experiments raise the question of whether research and tourism missions can be mixed on the same flight. Askren said Blue Origin is cautious about the ability to mix the two, given the “chaos” in the cabin during 0-g portions of parabolic flights. That’s not an issue, of course, for uncrewed vehicles, or for XCOR’s Lynx, which is small enough that almost every flight is a dedicated one for either tourism for research. “It’s your ride,” as XCOR’s Jeff Greason put it.

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